Life after third-party cookies: A recipe for better customer interactions

The end is near…for third-party cookies. But marketers don’t have to scramble to respond to the coming change. They can shift their efforts to people-first data strategies and embrace a fresh way of delivering value.

Picture this: Your friendly neighborhood marketer just learned that their favorite method of data collection will cease to be an option. What do they do?

Most respond in one of three ways. 

A. Pretend they didn’t hear the news and hope it wasn’t true.

B. Think about finding a replacement, but decide to keep their processes and methods the same. (That is, until change is unavoidable.)

C. Start the transition as soon as possible. Find their next tool, embrace new processes, and move forward with confidence.

Marketers who answer A or B are all too common. Plenty of teams stick with their go-to methods until they’re forced to abandon ship. 

After months of delays and speculation, Google announced that it would disable third-party cookies for 1% of Chrome users in the first quarter of 2024. 

Now, 1% might not seem like a lot. But the announcement makes it clear that this long-foretold change is about to get real. Rollouts for the other 99% of users will follow sooner rather than later. Marketers who still depend on third-party cookies need to change how they learn about their prospects and customers. People-centric marketing is the way forward. 

Here’s what Angelina Eng, a leader with 30 years of media planning and buying experience, has to say: 

How should marketers think about these upcoming changes? What methods could they embrace to thrive in a cookieless future? 

Hear from eight experts in this space about what steps to take right now to prepare for what’s next.

Don’t get burned by the changing data landscape

For years, it’s been all too easy to treat the elimination of third-party cookies as some far-off future problem. Yet the need for marketers to find new ways of learning about audiences is a right-now issue. (Or if you ask Angelina, it’s a challenge that brands needed to start addressing yesterday.)

Unfortunately, many teams are still taking a "wait-and-see" stance in response to the fast-approaching changes—and they’re spending their money accordingly. Rheanna Romanek says this about marketers in the Asia-Pacific region:

It’s sad but true—continuing to funnel major marketing spend into cookie-based marketing methods is a lot like polishing a sinking ship. Those dollars would be better spent on proactively exploring new strategies that can replace the data that brands will lose when third-party cookies go away for good.

Now isn't the time to stay comfortable and cling to old marketing methods. It’s time to get ready for what’s next.

Take it from Taylor Corr: Those who are still biding their time are already too late.

Google’s 1% announcement isn’t the beginning of the end—that came some time ago. So much user activity is already invisible to traditional ways of targeting audiences.

Brands can’t afford to look on passively as the changes roll out. They need to invest this time in finding new ways to understand and target audiences. As Dawn Mortensen points out, crafting and implementing an all-new strategy doesn’t happen overnight—it takes time.

Marketers need to pivot to new strategies ASAP. Yes, full disablement may still be a year or more away, but waiting to adapt is a mistake. Brands need a whole new way to approach audiences—and the key is first- and zero-party data.

First- and zero-party data: not-so-secret ingredients for marketing success

The conversation on zero-party data is an ongoing one—it’s the secret to building a competitive edge for brands, and it’s better for buyers

But although the power of zero-party data isn’t a brand-new concept, the marketing world is still working to nail down exact definitions for each of the data types

For instance, here’s how Jessie Lizak breaks things down:

Customers offer up zero-party data voluntarily and deliberately. It’s a highly transparent form of data in a world where privacy is king. Audiences might fill out a survey about their satisfaction with your service, or complete a quiz designed to show them the just-right product for them. 

First-party data also wins because organizations observe and collect it themselves. This means that they own the data—no strings attached. Examples include Google Analytics website data or heat maps of reader behavior.

For years, third-party cookies have offered marketers the path of least resistance. On the other hand, zero- and first-party data will usher in savvier data collection and sharper marketing.

To embrace this new way of learning about audiences, marketers must learn to lead with value and focus on building a relationship long before someone is ready to buy. This is what sets apart what Mark Kilens calls “the new way” of going to market—the people-first approach.

So what’s the reason for these new data types? Customer needs. Human-focused interactions are the backbone of better marketing efforts. In short, a cookieless future is really just a forcing function that should encourage creative and human-focused campaigns.

People-first data collection only happens after brands build trust with their audience. They need to offer clear, compelling value in exchange for zero-party data. For example, ever tried to convince someone to fill out a form? Incentives work wonders, and they can range from a coupon or discount to highly personalized recommendations or exclusive products.

This kind of value exchange requires companies to be more thoughtful and intentional with data collection than third-party cookies have ever been. And it’s important because organizations that don’t invest in customer-first strategies will be dead in the water in this new era. 

Building trust with customers is the key to customer-first data collection. It’s also the source of revenue, reach, and loyalty.

How to survive (and thrive) in a cookieless future 

It’s not too late for marketers who are still snacking on third-party cookies, but it will be soon. Let’s explore how to make the leap to zero- and first-party data.

1. Diversify your data strategy

One of the core reasons so many marketers are scrambling is this: They’ve bet it all on third-party cookies. Now, they urgently need to find new data collection methods just to stay afloat.

Josh Silverbauer says brands need to mix things up—before, and long after, cookies are gone.

In addition to advocating for first-party data strategies, Josh says the smartest strategy for this new era involves collecting data through multiple channels. When marketers rely too heavily on one method, losing access to that channel spells disaster.

Take, for example, the recent changes to social channels. As the platforms continue to evolve (from X’s feature and branding changes to Instagram’s continued algorithm shifts), the strongest personal brands don’t rely on these channels alone. 

Creators earn their followers on social, but they don’t have complete control over reaching them in the feeds. This is why investing in an owned channel, like an email list or community, is essential. 

In the same way, the natural answer to the departure of third-party cookies is the gathering of data that comes directly from customers. First- and zero-party data lack the limitations of third-party data. It offers brands greater control, a fuller picture of their audiences, and, most importantly, a customer-focused approach.

The smartest marketers will take the hint and spread out their data-gathering efforts rather than invest their time and attention in only a few channels.

2. Host events to capture data firsthand

Most of us wouldn’t expect to further our relationships with a friend, spouse, or family member without spending quality time with them.

The relationship between brands and audiences works the same way. Marketers who are serious about understanding their customers need to spend time with them, show a commitment to learning about them, and invest in channels that let them do just that.

Here’s Jonathan Kazarian’s take on first-party data and his favorite tactic for gathering it:

From educational webinars to large-scale in-person gatherings, events give brands the chance to spend time with their target audiences and interact directly. 

Events carry an unspoken understanding that attendees will glean a certain type of value, usually in the form of industry knowledge or networking. In exchange, they offer their time, often their money, and—you guessed it—their information. 

Of course, hosts can gather data by straightforward means such as registration forms, but these methods just scratch the surface:

  • Highly attended sessions can reveal the most pressing industry topics. 

  • Q&A sessions—whether in-person or virtual—offer insights into audience pain points and concerns. 

  • Thoughtful face-to-face conversations provide firsthand qualitative data in the voice of the customer.

What do the scrappiest brands do when they lose access to a major channel for data collection? They build their own forum to get up-close and personal with audiences—and events are the perfect way to do it.

3. Create a “walled garden” by tracking user behaviors and preferences

For years, brands have relied on third-party cookies for lots of reasons, but especially for understanding audiences’ browsing behaviors and purchase practices. So where should marketers turn to fill in the data gaps that cookies will leave?

Joe Shelerud proposes approaching the problem like Amazon—and relying on their resources to fuel better advertising along the way:

Amazon is a goldmine of first-party insights thanks to their massive audience base. Unsurprisingly, it’s easy for analysts at Amazon to paint a detailed picture of each of their customer personas based on browsing activity and order history. These detailed pictures are valuable—which is why they're sold on Amazon’s demand-side platform (DSP). B2C and DTC brands, in particular, should use this first-party data to supercharge the reach of their campaigns.

However, smart brands won’t stop there. While those customer insights are first-party data for Amazon, the DSP is a third-party ad server for everyone else. (And if cookies have one lesson to teach, it’s that marketers can't live on third parties alone.) 

So non-mega brands leaders: Use some third-party data like this, but lean way more on your own audience data. Sure, your “walled gardens” won’t be as large as Amazon. (It might feel like, well, a potted plant to start with.) But as you cultivate the data your audience provides and act on its insights, that garden will flourish—and, even in life after third-party cookies, so will your marketing.

As Google says ‘so long’ to third-party cookies in the months to come, plenty of marketers are still poised to have the rug pulled out from under them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

This major marketing shift may feel like the sky is falling. But the ground beneath marketers’ feet—that is, the power of customer insights and audience understanding—isn’t going anywhere. Brands do need to adjust how they gather this information, though, because cookies aren’t gonna cut it. 

It’s not all doom and gloom. This forced shift to relying on first- and zero-party tools (like forms) allows marketers to get the scoop on customers straight from the source, rather than relying on second and third parties. Forms give marketers a direct line to their audiences so they can capture the voice of the customer, gain real-time insights, and personalize their marketing efforts accordingly.

Believe it or not, the move to eliminate third-party cookies isn’t some sort of vendetta against marketers. It’s a play to protect customers’ privacy and build a new normal—one that’s people-first and helps everyone win.  

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em—and beating the Googles of the world is pretty well impossible. Join them by embracing the data-gathering methods of the future and listening to customers in ways that they choose. Forms are a great place to start.

Ready to start building your zero-party data strategy from scratch? People-friendly forms can help—get started with Typeform.

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